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Cuonzo Martin and the risk of playing it too safe

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Cuonzo Martin has made his name as a high-floor-low-ceiling coach. A change in approach could work wonders at Missouri... but what if it doesn’t?

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When Cuonzo Martin walked into Mizzou Arena on March 20, 2017, everyone knew the task that lay ahead of him. Jim Sterk knew it. The Board of Curators knew it. Donors knew it. Fans knew it. Cuonzo Martin certainly knew it.

The problem wasn’t just the energy of the fan base. People like to talk about fan support as if it were the end-all-be-all when it comes to programs stuck in stasis. Energize the fans and increase revenue — that’s the two-step process to solving the problem. More support equals a better atmosphere equals better resources equals a better recruiting pitch equals better team equals more support... and so on and so on.

But Martin’s job wasn’t just to put butts in seats. If that’d been it, he’d have received a contract extension after year one, and Missouri fans would have nodded collectively in approval.

As we’ve learned in the ensuing years, Martin’s job wasn’t just to energize the Missouri fanbase. It was to rebuild the program — scouting, roster management, culture — from the ground up. This isn’t to put the blame for where Missouri currently is on Kim Anderson’s shoulders. Rather, it’s an acknowledgement of the place where Cuonzo Martin started a little more than three years ago.

Upon his arrival in Columbia, Mo., the scouting report on Cuonzo Martin was fairly straight forward — high floors, low ceilings. Martin’s teams would rebound, play defense and be competitive. Nothing in his first nine seasons as a head coach suggested Missouri would be getting anything differently. Three seasons into his tenure at Missouri, that remains true.

The way Martin has gone about this is a fairly standard and widely accepted strategy amongst most college coaches — you recruit the players that will work in your system and you play the guys that help you win your way. Some coaches favor adaptability, while others stick to a more rigid system. Either way, everyone has a game plan, and they stick to it.

That brings us to the question facing Cuonzo Martin as he heads into his fourth year at Mizzou: Does his game plan need tweaking?

When Tray Jackson became the second member of the three-man 2019 recruiting class to transfer after less than a year in black-and-gold, it sent a collective panic through the bloodstream of Mizzou fandom. Jackson was a Top 75 talent at a position of need when he arrived on campus. Despite his infrequent playing time and constant lapses on defense, his potential was evident.

But there’s a reason Jackson didn’t get more playing time, and I mentioned it in the last sentence. Jackson was a defensive liability. He had the team’s second highest turnover rate behind Parker Braun. He averaged close to five fouls per 40 minutes. He was a talented but flawed player, and giving him more minutes would have likely cost Mizzou a game or two.

But there’s the rub: what good did another win or two accomplish this season? Is it really that much better to go 15-16 than 14-17 or even 13-18? What’s the distinction — maybe a play-in game at the SEC Tournament and a bit of pride?

Why not give Tray Jackson (or Mario McKinney, for that matter) more room to run, to learn from his mistakes and allow him to play through them? What’s the point of a win now if you’re not building toward your best future later?

That argument is valid, and may end up being the right strategy for Martin or whomever eventually turns Missouri basketball around. But it also ignores the situation in which any coach at the University of Missouri currently finds themselves.

It’s now been more than a decade since Missouri won an NCAA Tournament game and more than two years since the Tigers went dancing. In the past 10 seasons, Missouri is averaging 17.6 wins per year. Even that is skewed toward the earlier half of the 2010s — in the back half, Missouri is averaging 13.6 wins a year. The Tigers’ average KenPom ranking over the past five years is 104.

Missouri fans are desperate for wins. Cuonzo Martin knows it, and his strategy of minutes distribution reflects it. Cuonzo Martin is going to play the players he believes will bring Missouri wins for this simple reason: the more he wins, the longer he gets to keep his job.

This next bit requires some heavily presumptive and not-at-all analytical math. Stay with me.

Let’s assume 2017-2018 (i.e. The Porter Year) plays out the way it did. Cuonzo Martin then brings in Torrence Watson, Javon Pickett and Xavier Pinson as the 2018 recruiting class. Their respective minutes percentages were 56.7, 62.6 and 44.2.

Say Jordan Geist, who single-handedly buoyed Missouri’s offense at times that year, sacrifices some of his minutes for Xavier Pinson. Let’s say he does enough, in fact, that Missouri loses two more games. Their record is then 13-18 rather than 15-16. Does that tip the scales of Cuonzo Martin keeping his job after two years? Not likely, as his contract essentially guarantees him four years — but it also sews a little more discontent into the Missouri faithful.

Let’s then assume that in 2019-2020 Tray Jackson and Mario McKinney (16.9 and 4.7 mp%, respectively) each get a significant boost in playing time at the expense of others — we’ll use Mitchell Smith and Xavier Pinson as examples (the latter may seem absurd considering the finish Pinson had to this season, but it’s also the most likely scenario considering McKinney never would’ve taken minutes from Dru or Mark Smith.) Considering Smith and Pinson were both much more effective and efficient players over the long haul, let’s once again say Missouri loses two more games... but keeps both players on the roster.

At that point, you’re looking at two consecutive 13-18 seasons, following a disappointing end to the 2017-2018 Porter Year. What’s the feeling about Cuonzo Martin then? Likely worse. But does it matter if the only thing that can save Cuonzo Martin’s job in both scenarios is a return to the NCAA Tournament?

This may have all been a pointless thought exercise. As noted above, the conditions of Cuonzo Martin’s contract guaranteed him four years once he made the NCAA in his first season. If you squint really hard, you could even argue that this was his plan all along — lean heavily on the 2018 class for two years and enter 2020-2021 with a ton of experience and a prized recruiting class in 2020 [at least, before Caleb Love, Cam’Ron Fletcher and (likely) Josh Christopher decided to go elsewhere].

But no matter which way you slice it, there’s always been a ton of risk baked into the Missouri job. If you play raw, inexperienced freshmen, you risk losing more games and the support of a fan base that sours quickly due to years of poor quality basketball. If you play the guys who will win you every game possible, you risk losing the young guns that could be the backbone of your roster in the years to come.

Cuonzo Martin chose the latter strategy and is going to live with the consequences, good or bad. But pretending there wasn’t risk associated with playing things differently ignores the precarious position Martin has been in from the start.